The great state of Missouri is an ecotone — a transition area between the trackless forests of the east and the boundless prairies of the midwest. In the days before European settlement, our part of west central Missouri was mostly prairie, with trees generally being found only in valleys. I’ve read accounts of pioneers being left speechless by the endless seas of grass they encountered when they’d pushed this far, and one character in Giants in the Earth was even driven mad by the vastness of it all. (Indeed, the word “prairie” is a remnant of the French heritage of the region. The British settlers did not have a word in their language to describe the ocean of grass.)
True prairie is now rare in Missouri. Remnants are found here and there, and they are being protected as state parks or by visionary private land holders, but once a plow has broken up the network of roots that distinguish true prairie, the natural uniqueness is gone. Forget what you’ve heard about cowboys and cavalry. It was the steel plow that won the west!
Well, I don’t think I’m mad, nor do I think I’m all that visionary (though maybe they are the same thing), but it seems that part of what I will try to do by going to my forest is turn some of it back into prairie.
When the USDA man strolled about Roundrock with L and me, he commented that Missouri now has more forest land than it did in pre-settlement times. I found this astonishing. With all of the urban and suburban development, I would have guessed that Missouri would have far less “natural” state to it now than before, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.
The satellite photo I posted of Roundrock shows a mostly forested rectangle of land. However, when I used that same program to look at an image of Roundrock from only ten years prior, the same rectangle was much more open. The upstart trees were there, but they hadn’t filled out enuf to block the sunlight from reaching the ground. Thus, a little more than a decade ago, grasses were growing at Roundrock, though they were in their twilight then.
The USDA man assured me that the grasses are still there, waiting patiently as massive root systems for their chance in the sun again. He walked some of the forest with us and pointed to stray wisps of grass poking up from the leaf litter here and there. These were “flag leaves” he told us, sent up to get just enuf sunlight to feed the roots below. When the tree canopy is finally breached — generally because a storm has toppled an old oak — the grasses will re-emerge and flourish while they can.
The USDA man said we could encourage this growth by thinning our forest in selected areas. Thinning is good as a forestry practice since it encourages the trees left standing to grow straight and tall. Yet it will also give the native grasses an opportunity to come forth. The combination of the two — a grass-filled forest — is certainly pleasing to my eye. But it can be more than that. It can be ideal habitat for many of the wild things that make their homes at Roundrock. It is especially good for the quail, and my stewardship ambition includes playing my part in restoring Missouri quail populations.
Forest thinning is time consuming, but it’s not all that difficult. And it provides immediate gratification. You can see the effects of your efforts right away by longer lines of sight and easier wanderings through the woods. There is a triangle of forest to the northeast of the dam that we will start working on. I think it’s time to go sharpen my saws now.